Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 34 (2003) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
'A woman and her book are identical' - or so the American writer Edgar Allen Poe reflected when reading an early collection of poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.' Remembering the autobiographical nature of much of Barrett Browning's early work, his comment is not surprising. But it has a more general relevance for nineteenth-century women writers. The charge that they could only write of what they knew, and that what they knew best was themselves, was made regularly by reviewers. The easy association of the life and the work, or more accurately, a refusal to separate them, was crucial to the reading of these writers by their contemporaries. In this lecture I am concerned with the reading of nineteenth-century women, how they were read in their lifetime, particularly how they read one another, and how we read them today. More specifically I am interested in the role that contemporary biography played in this process: how in a number of celebrated instances, a biography constructed the woman writer inherited by the next generation of writers and readers of both sexes.
It was the American feminist critic Ellen Moers who first made the point that nineteenth-century English women writers sought and created the sense of a literary community by reading one another's books. 'The personal give-and-take of the literary life was closed to them', she wrote. 'Without it they studied with a special closeness the works written by their own sex, and developed a sense of easy, almost rude familiarity with the women who wrote them'. 2 Of course these were highly intelligent women reading the work of other highly intelligent women. They knew better than to look only for self-representation in these texts. They were astute critics of one another's work and conveyed their views, sometimes in personal correspondence, sometimes in published reviews. But to these writers, reading one another's books made them feel that they knew the authors. It was an alternative to a female literary society.
This reading culture was not confined to women writers as readers. It extended to all women readers. In her study of attitudes to women's reading in the Victorian period Kate Flint notes the sense of community felt by women readers of fiction and the emergence of female heroines as role models.' I want to suggest that both the search for role models, and the felt need for a personal knowledge of these women governed the reading of biographies as well as the works of women writers. To the wider reading public, both male and female, the biographies attracted the curious and the prurient as biographies have always done, but for this wider readership too there was a sense of wanting to know the woman behind the books.